The history of AP ‘s guidance on language

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Last week’s column about old Associated Press stylebooks and how they have changed or not stirred a lot of passion from readers. But except for the 1970 and 2018 stylebooks, none of the other ones mentioned were actually stylebooks as we think of them today: a guidebook for word usage and consistency. For the AP, the techniques involved in producing the news and getting it on the wires demanded more attention than the content.

So, more from the AP Corporate Archives, this time focusing on language itself.

In 1951, the AP introduced The Writing Handbook, whose “simple goal,” the foreword said, “is to make Associated Press writers better writers.” It discusses the readability studies of Dr. Rudolf Flesch, and notes that “News writing has the highest degree of readability when it informs the reader clearly and quickly, completely and interestingly.” It continues, using the universal “he” to represent the reader: “Every lead—and every subsequent paragraph—should be clear, incisive and interesting, so that he will be impelled to continue. We must not delay him with wordiness, confuse him with imperfect sentence structure or discourage him with dull, technical phraseology.” (Sound familiar?)

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The 36-page booklet then talks about overwriting (“Nothing strains an editor’s patience more than unnecessary words”), including advice like this: “An adjective can create a redundancy: x x x died of SEVERE burns today x x x (who dies of a scorched finger?).” On leads, it advises “Long, cluttered leads come from writers who try to put the whole story into one breath-taking sentence.” And, in the section about sentences, a favorite for many editors today: “It is natural to expect news writers to understand sentence structure. Yet, undeniably, some do not. Awkward, inept or ambiguous phrasing provides the strongest evidence. The words are all there, perhaps, but in the wrong order.”

On technique, the focus is on jargon, bureaucratic language and story structure. “What is good organization?” the booklet asks. “Any form that has impact.” It advises: “Work out the most interesting arrangement. Forget the traditional five Ws if an offbeat technique will hook the reader and entertain him while you inform him.”

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The Writing Handbook was issued again in 1959, but by then, the AP was also issuing what it formally called a “stylebook.” The many blank pages in the 68-page Associated Press Style Book from 1953 and its foreword acknowledge the impermanence of language: “The English language is fluid and changes incessantly. What last year may have been very formal, next year may be loosely informal.”

The AP’s advice on capitalization, abbreviations, punctuation, and numerals has remained relatively unchanged, though much is now described in greater detail. Its advice on titles gives the perfect example of what we’ve called adjectival pileup: “bargain basement ribbon clerk Jane Doe” or “Yankee rookie southpaw pitcher Blank.” (The 2018 stylebook examples are much simpler: astronaut John Glenn, movie star John Wayne, peanut farmer Jimmy Carter.)

Back then, the AP preferred “employe” to “employee,” and it explained the reason for not doubling consonants in words like “totaled,” “canceled,” and “kidnaped.” “The consonant is not doubled when the accent in a derivative falls upon an earlier syllable than the primitive.” Got that? The explanation became simpler in the 1970 stylebook: “A consonant is not doubled when the accent falls on an earlier syllable.” The current stylebook doesn’t even try to explain; it just lists the words with the constants that aren’t doubled.

In 1953, the three-page Religious section had just one mention of Judaism (“There is no national or international name for the Jewish Church”) and none of Islam or any other non-Christian religions. The 2018 stylebook, by contrast, has a 26-page Religion section with more than 200 entries, from “abaya” to “Zionism.” (The 1960 stylebook mentions the Koran and the Talmud, and has more complete listings of other religions and their organizations.)

Punctuation was simpler in 1953, taking up only five of the pamphlet-sized pages (the 2018 stylebook has 11 pages). The apostrophe, in particular, has gained in prominence (or confusion): It had three simple entries in 1953, including this one on possessives: “Usually the possessive of a singular noun not ending in ‘s’ is formed by adding the apostrophe and ‘s’; in the plural ending with ‘s’ or ‘ce’ the apostrophe only is added.” In 2018, the apostrophe takes up two full pages, nearly all of that on possessives.

Has language gotten more complicated? Or have we gotten less familiar with it? There’s no question that the world has gotten more complicated, and that guidance on language needs to keep up with that. But the growth of the AP Stylebook every year is an indication that people are looking for more guidance, or rules, and that it fills a void.

We could continue getting our geek on, but instead, next week we will look at how New York Times style has changed. Spoiler alert: It’s gotten more complicated, too.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.